Andijan: a city under arrest
Andijan does not look like a place which witnessed a massacre two months ago. The city is calm, with people going about their daily business. However, after spending a few hours there, one begins to realize that this is just an illusion. There is a large police and security presence — with many agents dressed as civilians — and everyone in the city is aware of their watchful eyes. In reality, Andijan is a city under arrest.
It is almost impossible to find people who are willing to speak about what happened here on May 13. I first visited the city a few days after the uprising and subsequent crackdown, and at that time, it was easy to find witnesses eager to give their account of what they had seen. Family members were not afraid to talk about how their husbands, wives, and children had been killed.
Today, the situation is completely different. Taxi drivers, normally talkative and helpful, refused to drive my colleague and me around the city once they learned that we were journalists. They were polite about it in a very Uzbek way, coming up with excuses like “I need to visit my sister in the hospital” or “I am late for my prayer,” but it was obvious that for them, journalists now meant trouble.
Bobur Square, which is adjacent to the city administration building that was at the center of events on May 13, has been reopened to the public after a thorough cleaning, and buildings along the nearby thoroughfare Navoi Avenue have been newly painted. But the administration building is still closed, and the adjacent Cholpon cinema building, which became the nerve-center of the uprising, is being demolished. But the authorities have not been able to remove all signs of what happened on May 13. Some residential houses still have large holes from machine-gun fire, and there are many broken or missing windows to bear witness as well.
A new fence has been built around the local headquarters of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which serves as the city’s main detention center. Early in the morning, one can count as many as one hundred people queuing near its front gate. These are the relatives of prisoners, and many continue to queue there day and night — despite oppressive heat — and hope to get the attention of the soldiers on the other side of the fence. Some wave their Uzbek passports in front of their faces to cool down, passports which they will need to present to the police if they are lucky enough to get the chance to visit their relatives. Some in the queue don’t even know whether their relatives are inside: they are just hoping.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs detention centre is today a focal point of life in Andijan. It is impossible to make clear estimates, but it is clear that very many people have been detained there since the uprising, as part of a massive operation to take into state custody not only those who participated in the demonstrations leading up to May 13, but also those who witnessed the events of that day. Witnesses to the violence who were injured and ended up being treated at a local hospital were subsequently transferred to the detention center for questioning, and even some of those who avoided the hospital have been taken from their homes by police. It is difficult to find anyone living in the central Bogishamol or Old City neighborhoods who does not have a relative being detained.
To support its efforts to monitor the local population, the state apparatus has pressed into service the local committees for each makhalla (neighborhood) of Andijan. The makhalla committees have helped the authorities collect any and all morgue tags which relatives took from the bodies of their loved ones before burial. Any written documentation by medical professionals about causes of death on May 13 has similarly disappeared. Relatives of the dead whom I interviewed said that they were told to give up the morgue tags, and that they were promised “social assistance” in return, although none has been yet forthcoming.
At the moment, people’s main concern is to have two questions answered: How did their loved ones die? And who is responsible? But these are the precise questions that the state does not want asked.
Many continue to search for relatives that went missing two months ago. I met one man who is still searching for his 25-year-old son, who didn’t come home on the evening of May 13. “He is not in a refugee camp,” the man said, “and he isn’t in the detention centre either, I checked. Where can I go to ask? I don’t know. We still hope that he is alive.”
There are no lists of missing people anywhere in town. I tried to look for one at a police office but the only list I found was a list with the title “WANTED UNDER CHARGES OF TERRORISM.” In the first row there is a picture of Lutfulla Shamsutdinov, a human rights activist who was the first person to give western radio stations an account of what was happening in the city on May 13.
One 59-year-old woman, a grandmother to thirteen children, is still looking for two of her sons-in-law. Her only son, 28 years old and the father of five of those grandchildren, was wounded by gunfire during the uprising and died four days later. Her two daughters fled after the violence and are in a refugee camp in southern Kyrgyzstan, but the whereabouts of their husbands is unknown. The grandmother didn’t find them in the hospital or morgue, so she believes they are in the detention centre. But the guards there will give her no information. So for now, she is looking after all thirteen of her grandchildren, and worrying. “They are asking me about their fathers. What can I say? I don’t wish this kind of life to anyone.”
The doctor in the regional hospital refused to speak with us directly. However, via a local contact, he told us that there are no wounded left in the hospital and that all records have been taken by the National Security Service. He refused to comment on the numbers, but he did say that he worked at the hospital for four consecutive nights after May 13 treating the wounded.
The Uzbek police and security services have taken control of Andijan for the time being, and they are well on their way to achieving their goal of removing all physical evidence of the May 13 massacre and detaining any remaining witnesses. They are also taking care to silence those residents who suffered losses that day — which is to say a majority of the city. Every family I spoke with told me that they had been warned by the police not to talk to anyone, and threatened with arrest if they did. Despite this, many spoke anyway, hoping that through this small act they could express their outrage and continuing resistance.
While walking in the Old City makhalla, I bumped into a makhalla committee activist who recognized me as a non-local and asked me whether I had seen the local committee boss before approaching people. To my rather naпve question about why I would need to do this, he replied that the city is full of terrorists and that the makhalla committee will protect me. I spent five days in Andijan and I didn’t see a single terrorist — only operatives of the regime. I wondered whether the makhalla committee would be able to protect me from them.